Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cyber “Stalking” (Not *That* Kind of Stalking)

I had an interesting conversation with a fellow grad student at the AAAs about “stalking” people online. This is the word we used, though I want to make clear that we were not in fact talking about scary, dangerous, creepy, actual stalking. Rather we were talking about using the Internet to gather information about people we were curious about. Still sounds kind of like stalking doesn’t it? Well, since we both agreed on that point and could not think of another commonly accepted word to discuss the topic, we talked about “stalking” people at the conference.

So, if I am not talking about creepy stalking, what am I talking about? I’m referring to the common practice of looking people up online to learn a bit about them. This came up in conversation because stalking panelists is a quick and easy way to help one decide which panels they may want to go to. It is also a great way to learn about what one might have missed in a panel (due to the size of the conference) and a way to find out who may be advantageous to meet.

People do not just do this in academic contexts however. People do it to their friends, crushes, colleagues, and whoever else may cross their path and pique their interest for one reason or another. Everyone I have ever asked has done this. More often than not it amounts to a simple Google search or a friend request on some social network and nothing more.Why isn’t this creepy? Thousands of people put up information on Facebook, Twitter, personal and professional websites. The information is publicly available and oftentimes is so because people put it out there themselves. (This is not always the case, but that is another topic for another day.) Yet…

The act of doing this felt just off enough that in the course of the conversation it became clear we were both, at some level, fishing for the other to confirm that what we were doing was socially acceptable in this day and age. It is, but why? And why does it sometimes feel wrong? On a very basic level, there is a difference between the anonymous feeling of Googling someone from the privacy of one's own home and doing something more visible, i.e. in person. The obvious difference here is one of visibility, but this is not just about being unseen. One of the social networks I am on,, tracks when people Google me and from where. Receiving this information has never bothered me, but if these people Googling me knew I was receiving this information would it bother them?

After I returned home I decided to get a second opinion from an IT professional friend to see if he viewed things differently since he was neither a woman nor an anthropologist. He stated the situation beautifully. 

  "Its a mindset change to put the blogs out there
  instead of keeping it private. That is maybe more of
  the cultural shift -- having us expose more about
  ourselves. But I think that change is on the
  provider -- not the consumer. Placing it on the
  consumer is the wrong way to look at it in my

He has a point. He pointed out that people have always been interested in people and that Googling someone is really no different from talking to their friends. Google is the new gossip I guess, only better because, as stated above, people voluntarily put information online about themselves. I am, in fact, flattered when I find out someone has read my blog. If I didn't want people to read it I wouldn't have put it online. As a producer, my behavior has changed. Viewing it in this way I am now considering whether or not the "creepy" factor brought up in my conversation at the AAAs didn't have more to do with the words we used rather than the actual behavior. Had we not used the word "stalking" to discuss this behavior would either of us had still felt uncomfortable at first about admitting that we were doing this to people at the AAAs? 

Language is not keeping up with technology and this, as the example shows, can create problems and misconceptions. The mainstream media is rife with negative views of new technologies, but how much of this is due to the language we use? As a games scholar I am perhaps sensitive to this because I frequently get people saying the most absurd and uneducated things to me about my field of study; and I sometimes have difficulty finding words that will both accurately describe research conclusions and be understandable to someone from outside the field. Although Googling someone maybe a part of an actual stalking incidence, it is not stalking in and of itself. As my IT friend said, "But as far as creepy, I think 90% of people are not - that 10% was creepy in past decades and are now." This is another good point - its important to remember that just because technology is making something more visible does mean that it is fundamentally changing the underlying behavior.

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